Kingdom Hearts is a series that knows how to milk its assets. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially given the thousands of fans, admirers, and cosplayers dressing up in black cloaks which seem pervade at every convention for everything ever. However, these fans will know that the main two titles of the series have since had their plot elements, worlds and various bits continually dissected, re-assembled and re-kajiggered into several other titles like coded, 358/2 Days and Chain of Memories. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been back to that bloody Olympus Coliseum over the KH’s long history, but it’s apparently not enough, as Square Enix has released Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix – another opportunity for me to lose countless hours to unlock a battle with Sephiroth, before soundly losing.
But really, Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix Words is a collection of two games – Kingdom Hearts Final Mix (the more complete version of the original PS2 game) and Re:Chain of Memories (a complete PS2 remake of a GBA mid-quel game) – upgraded into glorious HD. There is a third game rounding out the collection, another mid-quel called Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days (originally released for the DS), but strangely this has been ported only in cutscene form. The game’s storyline and major plot points are all here, but you can only watch through it all in the form of a very, very long movie.
I expect I don’t have to go into too much detail about the narrative of these games – suffice to say the series original pitch was along the lines of ‘Disney meets Final Fantasy‘, and this holds true to the finished product. In Kingdom Hearts, childhood friends Sora, Riku and Kairi are separated when their world is destroyed by the Heartless, leaving Sora to quest after his friends with the bizarre assistance of Donald Duck and Goofy. The Final Mix edition of the game includes some extra content which follows Riku’s parallel journey, although these extra scenes do not feature voice acting (probably due to the actors significantly aging since). Re:Chain of Memories picks up straight after the first game, and introduces Organization XIII and their evil and convoluted plan to trap Sora in Castle Oblivion. 358/2 Days shows us the Organization’s perspective with one of its fledgling members, Roxas, as he forms a rather heartfelt friendship with his fellow members Axel and Xion.
Of the two actual games present in this collection, the original Kingdom Hearts feels like the more complete experience. It sprawls across multiple worlds, from beloved films like Alice in Wonderland, Pinocchio and even Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Your time is mainly divided between exploring these worlds and chatting with its inhabitants, and fighting endless hordes of Heartless. Breaking the trend of Square’s previous Final Fantasy titles, Kingdom Hearts did away with random encounters and showed Heartless appearing on the field, with real-time action as opposed to turn-based combat. The only real menu you’ll see during battle is the quick menu in the corner of the screen, allowing you to simply bash away at your foes, or select items and spells. It’s not entirely intuitive, but it works well enough, and it helps that you can map shortcut buttons and that the camera is now mapped to the right analogue stick.
However, upon revisiting the game, some elements are starting to show their age. For instance, some of the cut corners to deliver so many environments are a clearer. Wonderland is, now more obviously than ever, a series of small boxed rooms (which is possibly intentional, but still feels cheap). The gameplay itself also really feels dates. Compared to the fast flowing battle and platforming in Kingdom Hearts 3D, the combat feels slow and the platforming delayed and clunky. You often feel like you’re trying to interact in an analogue world with digital commands, if that makes any sense. These aren’t new problems unique to this collection, but playing Kingdom Hearts ten years on does highlight some of its more glaring flaws.
Re:Chain of Memories dispenses with the quick-menu-based combat of its predecessor for a card-based battle system. It’s actually a lot of fun, if unconventional – you still move and jump as you do in the original, however all commands come from a deck of cards, which you’ll have to sort out between battles. The rules governing the system become a little complex, but each card represents a command from simple attacks to spells and summoning assistance from Donald and Goofy (who were constant allies in the original game). The theme of the game is that of memory – which is really an excuse to recycle locations, events and characters from the first game, which may get annoying to some coming straight off Final Mix. Somewhat more interesting is a second story, which is unlocked after completing Re:Chain of Memories and allows players to control Riku for an entire adventure with its own events and battles.
The HD upgrade on these games is, in a word, immaculate. Textures are crisp and detailed, character models are sharp and accurate to their source material, and the orchestral soundtrack really is beautiful. If this is your first Kingdom Hearts experience, you’d hardly know these games are from last decade, as their style and artistry really translates well to this generation. The only real complaint I have is an issue from the original games – as character models/textures switch to low-res versions during regular gameplay and sometimes during cutscenes. When you go from looking at Sora’s baby-faced and well-animated gob to a flat texture in a matter of seconds, the effect is jarring, but understandable given processing issues from the time.
If you’re a Disney fan and have never looked into the Kingdom Hearts series, then I’d strongly recommend giving 1.5 HD Remix a go. It’s a fantastic upgrade of the original which made the series famous, along with a fun side-story and interesting (but long) movie. The translation is among the best I’ve seen, aside from minor disappointments like voiceless cutscenes in Final Mix and a non-playable 358/2 Days. By its nature, the collection is well-trodden and familiar territory to long-time Keybladites (is that what their fans are called? Sorons? Roxasexuals?), which means going through the same locations and meeting the same characters another four or five times. Though, if you can’t get enough of the series’ unique brand of family friendly, but thoroughly confusing storytelling, this will just be an added bonus.
Fantastic visual upgrade | Lots of content for KH fans
358/2 Days isn't playable | The games are showing their age